“A poem has become part of my life,”

says poet Jakub Řehák, whose second collection Past na Brigitu (Trap for Brigita) won the Magnesia Litera award this year.


Jakub Řehák. Photo © Radek Brousil

Jakub Řehák. Photo © Radek Brousil

Does Prague still enchant you that much?
I’m fascinated by Prague. Perhaps like anybody who wasn’t born here. I’m reminded of something that Meyring said, that the breath of the dead can immediately be sensed in Prague. And there is something to that. Prague is this weird, slightly putrescent being.

Where are you from?

Is Prague a woman?
I don’t know if it is, actually. More of an octopus, I think. You can’t live in Prague and perhaps you can’t entirely live without Prague. I came to realize this again just recently. I was out of the country for some time and I started remembering my dreams quite vividly. Almost every one was to do with Prague or took place there. But then in Prague itself I don’t have any dreams, or I hardly remember any anyway, because in Prague you are forever moving in a half-doze, a constant waking dream. Prague is impressive, but I’d say that is in spite of its inhabitants. A more typical characteristic of Prague than the Castle is the dogs hit on the pavement. Drug addicts and homeless people collecting bottles from dustbins. Heroin substitute boxes thrown into corners beneath baroque churches. Baleful-eyed girls holding hands on hot summer streets… It is difficult not to be fascinated by this cocktail of chimeras. But then after a while it makes you feel a bit ill.

Have you noticed that the stars don’t shine at night in Prague?
It depends where you live. When I lived in Košíře and came out of the house at night for a smoke on the garage roof, I just had to raise my head and the whole galaxy was on display. Just like sparkling mica scattered in black asphalt. Whereas in Vršovice, where I live now, you see more of that orange bulb sky.

Which parts of Prague do you like best?
I do have some favourite places, but I’d rather keep them to myself. If I actually name them then it’s not really going to be any good.

Is there any room for poetry in today’s world?
That sounds like a provocation. It’s just like asking if there’s any room for human beings. It used to be common to have to always defend poetry. Poets – when anybody deigned to ask them – had to explain their deviation. Death, the end of poetry and silence. Every poet is in some way affected and accompanied by these. Perhaps because poetry mediates something very archaic and primitive, which is no longer a natural part of modern human awareness. I, myself, have had the physical feeling as I read poetry and sometimes after I write it, as if some force were passing through my body. So I find poetry to be something very fundamental, that has been here with us since the world began. It doesn’t need to seek a place. It takes one up naturally.

But the fact that this is not known much or that few people are aware of it is quite another matter. My favourite poet Leon Paul Fargue even says that when books die out, along with their readers, poets and critics – when the universe itself comes to an end, there will still be poetry and she will forgive the Absolute for having had to live for a time among scribblers and versifiers.

Where do you see yourself in Czech poetry?
A question on my position within Czech poetry is really one for the literary critics. I would like to get over the Czech context. Put my poetry on a level with my favourite poets regardless of country or time. Of course, I say that with some exaggeration.

And also a bit in earnest too… How would you describe modern Czech poetry?
I think it is still rather undefined, though I am speaking of younger poetry, not the older swells. There are several schools here that kind of ignore each other a little (I do too, nothing to be done about it). There are more imaginative, more traditional poets, meditative lyricists, authors who want to write simply and straightforwardly and try to write something like political poetry, and poets who swear on the language and who see poetry as a purely aesthetic and formal category. And of course there are lots of loners. But there is one problem here, that is, Czechia is not an entirely suitable environment for the natural development of various celebrity poets.

It seems to me – and I may be wrong – that an original poet is a person who has the strength not to give way to conventional trends in majority society. Except poets these days make compromises, they want to be “normal” and just escape into poetry now and then, so they are rarely distinctive and unique.

It’s hard to say who a poet is these days. A shaman, official, scholar, artist or tramp? That is always just the outer shell. I think a poet is somebody whose inner disposition doesn’t entirely conform to the times. And it doesn’t really matter which regime he lives under. He must have a very close feel for the language, consciously or otherwise. He makes sure of this by expanding his register, and uses it differently to most people, who write the language that has been imposed on them, thus limiting their reality, whereas the poet – and this is going to sound awfully ham-fisted and big-headed – expands that reality, mainly by finding verbal expression for its hidden forms. Apart from a sensitivity towards language, this also requires a certain mental disposition. It’s a membrane in the head, which lets in things that do not pass the threshold of awareness in many other people. Or they do in some people, but then they don’t have the actual language. You have to recognize it, come to terms with it and then look after it and not lack faith. I was speaking more of the literary usage that is predominant here.

How do you mean?
After a certain time lots of poets start conserving their style and stop developing it. One or two collections come out and their style is then often fixed. One reason is poor editing policy (with some exceptions, little, if any, editing work on collections), a lax approach in the large-scale media, if any – they don’t print poetry reviews in the dailies. And then not many people who write about poetry manage to express themselves in an informed manner without using academic jargon, which is the bane of a lot of texts. But I am not complaining, just stating a fact. Someone else might say that modern poetry is simply uninteresting and the authors themselves are to blame. But that is another discussion.

What do you mean by “conserving your poetic style”?
I’ve been reading a lot of John Ashbery. I’m fascinated by the way he quite consciously develops his style. He has expanded his poetic capacity. I find this is missing a little here in Czechia, as if some poets were afraid of evolving, as if it were dangerous to depart from the style you have found. When a publication is brought out, expectations are aroused. What will this one be like? And of course it is easier to keep doing the same thing and to meet those expectations. But I don’t think you should do that. You need to let that momentum pass and set out elsewhere. Even try something that you don’t like in other people’s poetry.

What do you think good poetry editing looks like?
It should definitely not just be proofreading, for example. Whoever is in charge of a collection at the publisher’s should see it as a whole, see its potential and manage to point out things that aren’t suitable. Importantly, the editor should not just be happy with what the author has put if front of him. He should have an overview, but he should also be able to sense where that book is heading, that is, sense what form it might ideally take. Petr Borkovec, for example, is very good at this kind of delicate direction.

Reviewers see you as a surrealist. Do you see yourself that way?
No, I don’t. But surrealism was important for me. I do keep coming back to it. The first two parts of Brigita were written at a time when I found myself reading a lot of Effenberger’s second volume and Breton’s poetry, translated by Petr Král. At the time I was also reading some of Zbyněk Havlíček’s early poetry. I wrote reviews and articles on all three of them. And I think that had an influence on some of the poems from Brigita. But I have never resisted that influence. Quite the contrary. What keeps me fascinated in surrealism is its stress on the fact that first something has to happen to you. You have to change your awareness for a poem to emerge. A poem that has the character of energy, which can have an influence even on this “ordinary” life. It’s happened to me several times that I have written a poem and in a sense it has materialized and become a part of my life.

For example?
In an old poem, Garden after Nightfall, a strange situation occurred: “a chap with an illuminated hand / knows / that girls pass there / from their shift / he lurks there/ strangles the girls / hangs them up on low tram wires / but only for a while / the girls resist and throw away their bags / when they run down the dark path / metal resounds in their neck / and the horror disappears”. About two months later somebody attacked my girlfriend at the time in a similar way. When Yellow Umbrella Opens a Chaotic Season was written, the poem seemed to literally lead me towards certain life situations, without which it would not have been what it was. Words basically have this power. But this only works sometimes. With a certain strong energy that you are not even aware of at the time. Banal as it is, that is what I find.

Speaking of energy, do you like reading your poems out loud?
I will occasionally read out a poem to myself when I am trying to finish it, to check if the rhythm works and sometimes I like to read to the public for similar reasons. Sometimes it happens – the text has an energy, it gives something and at the same time it takes something from the audience. But I do not enjoy the actual act of reading.

Do you like your own voice?
I’d say it this way: before each public reading I usually want to die or throw up in the nearest toilet. I hate myself for being such a narcissus or masochist that I agreed to a reading. But then it changes and I sometimes have the feeling that as I read, a poem acquires a tone that might hurt somebody. But what I want to stress is that like Šalda I think that poems should be read out loud in their entirety – they shouldn’t be divided into individual stanzas or words, but people should be enabled to experience that unity that each poem hides within itself. I don’t like theatrical presentations of poetry very much – the tradition of passionate, enthusiastic performances.


Interviewed by Kateřina Nechvílová